Benediction Online

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Getting to God

The response of Jesus in today’s gospel reading is always a little puzzling because it seems harsh and is almost certainly a racial slur. The Jews thought of the Gentile, pagan people as dogs because they were ritually unclean. And it was not exactly a term of affection.

This story is familiar to us in the version Matthew provides – which has details Mark does not mention. Since Matthew’s was written later, it’s very probable that his additions were the result of the story being circulated by word of mouth and added to by different storytellers. But today we hear Mark’s story – the historian Eusebius tells us that Mark got his information directly from Peter – of course we don’t know how Eusebius knew that and how reliable his source was, but this may be Peter’s version.

Tyre is on the coast, about fifteen miles northwest of the boarder of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus was trying to take a vacation – certainly he was trying to be anonymous, an increasingly difficult task – and a woman not only sees him but follows him into the house. Perhaps when she asked him to heal her daughter, he himself was tired and hungry and his statement “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” meant “give me a break – I need some spiritual sustenance before I can help you.”

Most scholars think that this is one story where Jesus’ humanness shows through. He was a Jewish man, and though he and his disciples often took the traditions lightly, he probably had some blind spots. Just like we do.

The reading from James challenges us on ours: What do we do when someone comes to church who smells bad? Or someone whose clothes are dirty? Or what about the person who talks too loudly or eats too much, who has bad manners?
Or the person who volunteers but doesn’t follow through?
Or the person who comes into the shop and makes a mess? Or who says the prices are too high when we know they’re rock bottom?
It’s much easier to be inclusive when everyone behaves like we do.

James says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin.”

Sometimes we judge people by whether we think they are deserving or not. According to James,  if we give more to the person we think is deserving, and less to the person we think is underserving, then we are sinning.

Giving doesn’t just refer to material things. How much attention we give someone is a mark of how much we honor them. Some people are more fun to talk to than others. James says not to show partiality, so that means giving as much attention to those who are tedious as to those who are fun, to those who are self-obsessed as to those who are interesting.

For James, the gospel is a verb. It’s not just hearing the good news. It’s not just having wonderful spiritual moments or thoughts - it’s getting involved. It’s getting our hands dirty by caring for others. It’s working at the Abudance Shop, providing food for the Prado Day Center, it’s supporting Bread for the World to keep reminding our politicians to feed the hungry, it’s spending less on dinner and sending the money to help those who are literally hungry across the world. It’s paying attention and honoring those who we find difficult or boring.

So back to Jesus.

The Syrophoenican woman answers back – “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” and Jesus says, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

This woman had three things going against her:
First she was a woman, second she was a pagan. Jewish men didn’t normally speak to women or Gentiles because they were unclean. And third, Jesus wanted to be left alone, and basically told her to go away.

But her love for her daughter helped her to push through to a real connection with Jesus.

What are the things that get in the way of your making a real connection with God?

Habits of the heart which keep us closed down to other people, which keep us judging and scornful, which make us hold on to grudges and anger, those keep us closed down to God too.

In the moment that the Syropheonician woman approached Jesus, he was closed to her, but he didn’t stay there. He let go of his thoughts about Gentile women, and he let go of his feelings about being bugged when all he wanted was some peace and quiet, so that he could be present to her. When we hold on to habits which keep us closed to certain other people, the ones we don’t like or who irritate us or who behave in ways we don’t like, or who call when we are watching our favorite program, we are holding on to habits which also work to keep us closed to God.

It works both ways. The more we are closed to others, the more we are closed to God – the more we open to the Spirit, the more we open to others. The more we can forgive ourselves, the more we can forgive others – and the more we love, the more love there is to go round.

Fortunately, God is not a Jewsih man – God is above and beyond all our human pettiness, all our human divisions. God is open to us all the time, 24/7.  In a few mimutes we’ll make our confession together, not so much because God needs it but because we need it, so that we can know with certainty that whatever might prevent us coming to God is cleared out of the way, and we have full access to the throne of grace.


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